“From Calvin to the Caliphate” is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by John Owen IV. It was well received prompting quite a number of responses by Arab and Muslim intellectuals. Most of the critique which I came across was in the form of a defense of Muslim history – past and contemporary – due to some of the generalizations Owen made, or attempts to refute the comparisons between the nature of the religious wars in Europe and those going on today in the Muslim world. I want to present another critique perspective to Owen’s article.
The main argument which Owen puts forward is that the current situation in parts of the Muslim world can be viewed through the lens of a religious war, and that one way to make sense of it is to go back to the European religious wars of the 16th century and after. This is not a new observation to make. The predominant narrative used to explain some dimensions of the Muslim world’s predicament is that of a ‘religious war’, and there have been comparisons drawn between our current religious wars and that of Europe. Muslim historians also tend to draw comparisons with the religious wars between Muslims themselves in particular those between the 7th-10th centuries. But Owen goes further than to simply make a statement, and explicates how that narrative makes sense. He is not seeking to convince his audience that there is a religious war going on, rather give them the tools to sustain such a view.
I believe Owen is wrong. His fundamental mistake is that he considers the various Islamists’ campaigns – from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS – a religious war. He makes the same mistake so many others have made and have been repeating for the past three decades. This mistake is not an academic one. It has serious implications on policy making and the use of intervention to solve some of the problems Muslims are facing.
Owen and others want to say that the fault lines in much of the conflicts in the Muslim world is religion. This is based solely on the fact that goals of some parties in the conflict are religious. ISIS for example seeks a caliphate, thus its conflict with the Iraqi government or in Syria is a religious one. But I think there is a better way to look at the matter.
I see that the conflict’s fault lines are the idea of the Westphalian State and the legitimacy of national borders. In other words, we do not have a war between religious actors and areligious actors; rather a war between those who do not believe in the modern state and those who do, between non-state actors whose goals are to bring down the Westphalian order and state actors whose goals are to sustain that order.
There is of course in the Muslim world a conflict on how a state should govern; calls for political participation and transparent governance are part of that conflict; but there is another more serious conflict on whether or not a Westphalian state should exist in the first place. Sometimes both conflicts get mixed up because the same actor may be present in both. The Muslim Brotherhood for example can be found in the camps that call for democracy, but they also belong to the camp which calls for a caliphate. ISIS militants only belong to the second camp.
What is an Islamist?
Another fundamental mistake Owen makes is that he assumes that all those who want Shariah rule are Islamists. This is a very serious mistake and influenced the type of recommendation Owen made towards the end of his article. The reason he makes such a mistake is that he does not have a clear definition of what an Islamist is. An Islamist is not simply a pious Muslim who wishes to see God’s laws being followed. An Islamist is a Muslim who has adopted a modern ideology, and that ideology provides the Islamists with a view of the political world also the strategies to navigate in that world. I believe an Islamist is a Muslim who holds the following tenets, in varying degrees:
1. Emphasis on humiliation of Islam by the West.
2. Colonialism is an ongoing project that has not ended.
3. Illegitimacy of the modern state: sovereign borders.
4. Conspiratorial thinking: the world is conspiring against Islam, in particular the Western World.
5. A vision for an Islamic revival based on a return to the Caliphate.
6. The ideal political order is one which existed fourteen hundred years ago.
7. The primacy of Islamic identity to all other identities especially to national identities. A Muslim in the view of the Islamists must be committed to the political goal of regaining the caliphate more than his/her commitment to the national state one belongs to.
8. The duty to uphold rule of Shariah.
9. Revolutionary attitude and rejection of status quo.
10. A belief that there are vanguards who are the agents of history and the representatives of the collective will and those vanguards have a right and an obligation to impose the collective will on all society.
11. The imperative of organized activity – most of the time secretive – towards achieving the ultimate goal of the caliphate.
Different Islamists understand and commit to those tenets in various degrees; my point here is to merely make it clear that what makes an Islamist is not found in Islam rather in ideas developed in the early 20th century. Wanting Shariah rule is but one element that defines an Islamist. The fact is that there are many who want Shariah to be the sole source of legislation in a given country but do not have an Islamist ideology.
His mistake in defining Islamism makes him think that an Islamist’s conflict is with the secularist. This is wrong. Those who want Shariah rule are mostly in disagreement with the secularist. But Islamists are first and foremost in conflict with the spirit of modernity and most importantly with the idea of the Westphalian state.
Misunderstanding what an Islamist is has lead Owen to another more serious mistake when he assumes that it is possible even desirable to cultivate moderate Islamists. This is not possible. It is like saying that we should cultivate moderate revolutionaries who want to bring down the current state order. There are many moderate advocates of Shariah rule. But I believe you cannot have a moderate Islamists.
The distinction between advocates of Sharia and Islamists is a very important one with clear policy implications. We can and should support the right of Shariah advocates as long as their advocacy is bounded by an acceptance of the Westphalian order. But we cannot and should never support any form of Islamism if its raison d’etre is to bring down the existing order and create a new one.
ISIS’ violence is not because it is fighting a religious war with religious fervor. Its use of violence is because it has decided to bring the Islamist dream to light. ISIS is the Islamists par excellence: against the Wesphalian state order. This is not from Calvin to the Caliphate; rather from Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to ISIS.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1